As AC Transit begins construction on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on International Boulevard in Oakland, we wanted to take a moment to consider the impact of the new transit design on one population that relies heavily on the bus system: seniors, particularly low-income seniors, many of whom travel along this corridor.
One commonly voiced fear about the new BRT line is that better transit will raise real estate prices in an area of historically lower-income residents. Low-income seniors living in rapidly changing neighborhoods are in gentrification’s crosshairs. Safe access to reliable transit is one of the most important factors that allows them to age in place and stay in Oakland.
The BRT line will replace the 1 and 1R lines on International Boulevard, providing connections from San Leandro to downtown Oakland. Stops on the new line will be spaced one-third of a mile apart (about the distance to walk from 12th Street BART across Broadway and Frank Ogawa Plaza to Oakland City Hall).
BRT is projected to increase ridership along this corridor from 25,000 trips per day to 36,000. “I’m really, really happy about that,” said Chonita Chew, a travel trainer with United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County (USOAC), which helps seniors 55 and older transition from driving to taking transit.. “I’m happy about the BRT. It’s going to make my job easier.”
“The BRT route is heavily traveled by seniors and people with disabilities,” said Joel Ramos, regional planning director at TransForm. Planners put together a list of about 100 senior destinations along the proposed route when they first started working on the BRT project eight years ago. Those destinations helped determine the locations of many of the BRT stops. Ramos said that seniors and senior advocates played an important role in shaping the services that will be offered by BRT in Oakland.
“[Transit] cuts back on isolation,” said Chew. “It’s the benefits of going somewhere and getting around. It gives [seniors] independence, especially when they have to give up their car.”
“The idea of this project is to make mobility, particularly along that corridor, much easier,” said AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson.
To make sure the design of the stations is age- and disability-friendly, AC Transit brought on some of the same designers behind the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, which is an icon of universal design (a design philosophy that aims to make spaces equally accessible to people of all ages and abilities). Station features that benefit seniors, such as level boarding from a raised platform, make access seamless for baby strollers as well as wheelchairs by eliminating the need to climb stairs to get on the bus.
“The major [problem] I hear is crossing International,” Chew said. BRT will provide a safe place to stop in the middle of the street for seniors who need two signal cycles to make it across. “It’s just going to increase ridership,” she added. “And I think it’s going to take a lot more cars off the road.”
“What we heard from a lot of seniors,” said Ramos, is “we just want to get places safely and comfortably.” He added, “Nobody likes waiting around for a bus … standing around effectively exposing yourself to crime and any kind of danger.”
Well-lit and sheltered BRT stations and buses scheduled to arrive every five minutes will enhance safety for seniors and all riders.
Community input into the design process drilled down to the fine points of user experience. Sidewalks near BRT stations will be textured, to alert blind residents that they are close to the bus stop. Based on input from seniors, the texture won’t be so bumpy that it is hard to navigate with a walker. “Little things like that are being put into the station design so that universal accessibility designs are not just met but exceeded,” said Ramos.
Oakland riders of all ages will get a chance to compare the operation of the BRT to its potential sometime in 2017 when work is completed.
For more information about USOAC’s travel training for older adults, you can contact travel trainer Chonita Chew at (510) 729-0851.
Laura McCamy wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP. This is the first in a series about the effect of gentrification on seniors in Oakland.
This article originally appeared on Oakland Local, a KQED News Associate site.